It’s too early on the ferry, but here I am, buying champagne for breakfast. The attendant at the bar rolls his eyes, or maybe he’s secretly delighted – it doesn’t matter. When he turns around and retrieves the bottles, the pint-sized miniatures suggest a small and accomplishable happiness. In a short spell, consummate happiness will be mine to ingest.
When I return to the counter a few minutes later, you clear your throat. You aren’t eating or drinking anything, so your presence confuses me.
‘Two more bottles, please,’ I request the bartender.
Behind my ears, the Cyclades lap and languish like green curtains. Mountains and promontories rise and wither, like unearthed artefacts. The gust of wind is a dominant hand in my hair, my shirt, my seven AM buttons are quite undone, and you, to me, are just another coin in the chaos, a drop in the Grecian spring of my youth. Who are you anyway, staring at me like that?
‘Are you celebrating?’ you ask, in an ambivalent tone. Your eyes flash to the recesses of the ferry, where my friends are, listening to music, laughing, breezing.
At your question, I go cold.
Whenever I travel internationally, my natural reaction is to stiffen when addressed by any stranger, outside consumer transactions or visits to bars. An interlude too unanticipated, I fear, will be followed by a predictable remark, a slur, or some unbidden, rampantly unnecessary challenge from the curious party, as regards my proficiency to function on foreign land. ‘You drink alcohol? You eat meat? You drive cars, not elephants?’ Inside these small denigrations, what irks most is not knowing whom to pin my distaste onto: do I go after the questioning party, for not exhibiting a precise yet encyclopaedic knowledge of other cultures? Or do I turn inward for the reprimand, reflect on my own deficient outlook, that places American and British output as the global foci of aesthetics and sensibility? If asked, could I name one South Asian superstar, some prolific writer emerged from Tagore’s school, as my literary influence? I couldn’t. Instead, each time I stare in the mirror, my first thought is, ‘You like a classic style.’ Quietly disposed, not easily excited. Combed hair, splash of eau de toilette behind the ears. 1950s, Madison Avenue. Bespoke tailoring and Queen’s English, spot of whisky for breakfast. A bad time for all involved (especially my sort).
I glance sideways and reply with facticity. ‘Yeah, we’re celebrating.’
Your careful gaze measures my stoicism, while the bartender hands me the bill. The transaction is over, the script maxed out, but I persist in place a minute longer. With furtive looks, I determine you aren’t a local. You possess all the makings, of course: tan complexion, comfy cotton outfit, sun-tousled strands of blonde, and a laissez-faire spirit to match. But your eyes are grey, blue, very icy, from somewhere niche and indifferent. As I grasp the champagne and turn around, the bell of reason clangs in my skull to ask, ‘Who’s being presumptuous, now?’
After my third stint, the astonished bartender decries, ‘The champagne is over!’
By then, you’ve moved away from your post. You stand by the metallic railing on the side of the deck, admiring the oceanic view with your back turned to everything. For the fourth and final round (beers only), I time myself perfectly so the two of us coincide again.
‘Where are you from, exactly?’ I ask, tipsy, audacious. ‘I can’t place your accent.’
We converse fleetingly, in vacation shorthand. The ferry docks in Paros an hour later. Arriving at the resort, my friends slump to their cottages with weary shoulders, but the butterflies are soaring, still. Everyone decides to meet after a nap, but I can’t lay myself down; I’m too wired. Stepping out, I encounter a pair from my group sitting under an umbrella, next to the pool. ‘Too early for gin—?’ we philosophise, for the sake of discussion.
The young bartender who serves us—Milos—is working on his English, and he cracks a lot of jokes. Amply he’s aware of his own charm, which ironically renders him a bit charmless in the end. We all become friends, nonetheless. I enquire if there are any hiking spots nearby, and he nods yes, but adds that the weather is brutal and it would be dangerous to venture out by myself. ‘I’ve no intention of going by myself,’ I nearly admit, but refrain at the last minute.
At night, I declare myself the designated driver, refusing to indulge and risk the potential hangover. Expectedly, as the evening proceeds, hastened pride about my club soda status turns into metaphysical distress about ‘missing out on fun,’ so I drown one shot of Jägermeister, then another. Am I fine? everyone asks, as we trundle down the paved flagstones of Naoussa Village – the quaint and yellow quarters of the weekday club scene. Music, blues or electronic or Latin, thumps out like different tempers, red pill, blue pill, jarring alternate to the family-oriented cafes, dessert parlours, and glassy pizzerias that huddle soberly alongside. There are shops too, open till late, selling bangles and dream catchers, kaftans and straw hats. Blush-cheeked teenagers hang from artisan balconies overhead, everyone the same shade of hopeful, not the least bit desperate. Even so, the scene appears too immaculate to be representational in any real sense; everywhere we look, it’s tourists galore, who are visibly dissimilar to us, yet they act entirely the same.
At one red-clad venue, our gang charges in and is met by an equally boisterous set of owners, who encourage us by playing a Bollywood song on the sound set. Another round of Jäger then, to applaud this meeting of the minds. When the third crowd-pleasing number hits, I break out of the bar, telling everyone I need to make an urgent call. The outside air, now clear of the early dinner crowd, spins in sea-kissed circles. My enervation drips away like sweat, as I stagger past alleys and take out my phone. The black screen resembles an inert stone with some magical propensity, and scarcely deliberating the opportunity cost, I leave you a message.
Calmer then, I amble forward and arrive at two benches that overlook a quiet span of water. Dinghies lop and blink in front, and in the distance, an expanse of dunes lies suffused in grades of darkness. At one perch, a group of young men lounge and chat in Italian, sharing joints and cigarettes. They appear plucked from the same nest: of muscular build, military style haircuts, piercings, loose black t-shirts, and tight pants. The inflection of their intimacy confuses me. Not friends. Lovers? The image of one of them—the handsomest in my opinion and particularly dark featured—plays over my eyes, and I conjure us both, entangled under a remote arch somewhere, smoking and kissing. The music and signs of life long forgotten, the only concern our intimacy, the shape of our delight. But I revoke the sentiment harshly, like another paltry shot of liquor, when one of my friends catches my shoulder from behind.
Returning to the bar, I announce to everyone, ‘I’m going for a hike tomorrow, very early. Would anyone care to join?’
Before sunrise finds me, your car arrives. I slink into the passenger seat, and am introduced to your Siberian husky, Sasha. ‘Isn’t it unpleasant for her?’ I consider, gauging the muted draught outside, and scorching temperatures to follow. ‘I brought her from Alsace,’ you explain. ‘There was no alternative.’ But the insinuation frazzles you somewhat; you roll up the windows pointedly, and turn on the air conditioning, full blast. We travel in chilled silence, arriving at the foot of my memories: the diffused mountain expanse from last evening.
‘Lefkes,’ you describe, as we exit the car towards a prism of whitewashed cottages, shrouded in twilight blue. A narrow and winding map leads us sauntering uphill, to the breast of a walking trail, where we halt before a detached chapel and single, grandiose olive tree. A strong gust overtakes us, and I’m swept by a sudden, strange fear for my life. ‘I’m terrified of snakes,’ I abruptly confess. Your unspeaking silhouette doesn’t placate my fears, only your head shakes, as if to say, ‘It’s too late now.’
Making the ascent—somewhat rocky, rewardingly pastoral—the two of us cross professions, palates, the countries we’ve both travelled to. You love sushi, yet you’re a marine biologist. You haven’t gone to India, but Oh, the stories you’ve heard. You ask if I’ll ever visit France. ‘I’ve been twice, actually. But only to Paris, and nothing spectacular happened. I didn’t let the city unfold naturally, I was too cautious.’ I signal the shape of a trench coat over my chest, perhaps a straitjacket, and you nod knowingly; a glint of kinship sparks briefly, between us.
Some fig trees and terraced hills later, at the cusp of a curved trail, we stop and overlook a verdant valley, where I forget what worry tasted like, though my glands are tear-jerked, overworked. Down the poignant view, dawn breaks across the Aegean Sea, where craters of land metamorphose and alternate, to designate the clearest blue of my entire life. To hold your hand (or anyone’s) would emphasise the specialness of the moment, but I refuse to make the first move, to embarrass the goodwill I’ve accrued during our last hour of small talk.
You guide me through the trees, into a secluded copse, where we kiss. In your chaffed lips, all of morning’s grit becomes known to me, creates an intimacy beautiful and rancid in equal measure. While Sasha rests, we make a carpet of our strewn clothes and repose in the bristling shade of overhanging leaves. I embrace your body with unbridled sentiment, wrapping my arms and legs tightly around your frame. It’s untenable, my straitjacket and passionate sentimentality, but I am exacting to my cause. The remainder of my life is and remains a blanket intoxicated dullness, so I crave a flash of clear lucidity, where I can reveal myself, and in turn, be acknowledged skin to cell – completely. From the craters of your eyes, I sense you don’t hate how hungrily I joined myself to you, but you are surprised anyway, taken aback, taken. Afterwards, we don’t kiss, but you weave your fingers between my own, and there follows silence, a conciliation of spirit, an agreement of mutual space.
‘What were you thinking?’ you query, when we return to the car in the late afternoon. The view outside the window changes; by the time I reply, the spiritual vista behind us has long vanished.
‘I was just living in the present,’ I answer. ‘I wasn’t thinking about the next time, or if I’d ever speak to you again.’
‘Why, won’t you miss me?’
Your manner is sly, and your hand moves towards mine, but by now my other self has returned, restoring with it the apathy of our mutual origin, an inhumanity I’ve so well-adopted, like a third mask, over the second, over the first. To suffocate passion is imperative. Foisted between a heteronormative social order, and the desolation of casual dating life, there are but a few taut seconds where I can tear into existence and adore myself, so please, let respite lie still, and don’t dissect the enjoyment out of me.
At the resort, my friends are only now rising for lunch, and I join them directly, opting not to shower first. Over cloches of fruit and sausages, one of them sniffs and signals at my muddied outfit. ‘I didn’t think you liked to trek,’ she says. ‘I can’t see you getting your hands dirty, for whatever reason.’
I smile self-effacingly, and bring a slice of melon to my lips. The nectar is sweet and juicy, but still I prefer that rare fruit, that grows only in the desert. Taking a seat next to my friend, I nod sincerely and profess – ‘Now that you mention it, I can’t think of getting my hands dirty, either.’
And the matter is always forgotten, before it ever begins.